For those who haven’t worked with content types before, a frequent question is how many are needed? This article will look at some best practices for how to structure content types with the right level of granularity.
Michael AndrewsPublished on Jul 25, 2022
Don’t underestimate the criticality of content types. They define the structure of what you publish. How you group elements into content types will affect many dimensions of your content operations:
- How your organization will create and update content
- How you can deliver details to customers
- How you can measure the effectiveness of different combinations of information
How many content types you need is an important question. But it’s one that’s hard to answer in the abstract.
The question goes to a fundamental issue: How far should you structure your content so that it achieves everything it can? Unfortunately, people who ask this question sometimes get misguided advice from vendors or project implementers. Watch out for pat answers that seem too simple and applicable to everyone. Each organization’s situation will be different from others, so no single answer will apply to everyone.
There’s no pre-defined number of content types that you will need. The number of content types that’s right for your organization will be specific to you. You, not your vendor, should decide the appropriate number of content types that’s right for your organization. Make sure that those advising you aren’t giving advice simply because it makes decisions or implementation faster in the short term, or because the number of content types becomes a cost that needs to be managed.
Avoid rationing content types
Some headless CMS vendors make customers pay for each content type beyond a base limit.
Charging for content types can result in unpleasant surprises after buying a solution by either limiting the scope of the implementation or adding to its costs.
No one can know how many content types are needed until the project team has done a thorough analysis of business requirements. This involves analyzing the inventory of existing content that will be structured by a new content model, looking at the ownership of responsibilities and the workflows relating to the content, and examining how the content will be delivered to customers.
Vendor-created artificial constraints have led some organizations to impose "content type rationing" to limit the number of content types they use. Instead of structuring the content into coherent pieces based on their inherent reusability, a rationing approach can result in bad modeling practices such as:
- Conglomeration - throwing unrelated fields into a big content type where many fields will be optional and extraneous to authors in most situations
- Over-abstraction - under-specifying fields by using generic labels, which causes the model to lose its granular precision and be vague and confusing to authors
Vendors that charge extra for additional content types fail to give their customers sufficient control over content details, which hinders their ability to manage their content appropriately.
A bad content model has costs. As you define content types, you are developing your content model. Content models that are rushed, too generic, or overly complicated can create hidden problems that will become evident only later in the process. Once implemented, the model will influence the daily work of those creating content. It’s important to get the model right from the beginning and not to view modeling as a task to complete expediently by a small team without wider input from those who will be impacted by it.
Decide based on what you need, not on what you’ve bought
Vendors shouldn’t set a base number of content types they assume is right for everyone. Publishers shouldn’t have to pay a premium to be able to implement their solution correctly. You should never face a conflict between what you need and what you’ve bought.
Choose a CMS that offers unlimited content types so that your decisions aren’t artificially constrained by plan limits or extra charges.
The right number of types will depend on two factors:
- The diversity of your content
- The modularity of your content approach
If you have diverse content that addresses many dissimilar topics and needs to support a wide range of tasks, you will need more content types than if your organization only discusses a limited range of topics or offers a limited range of services.
You’ll benefit from having additional content types if you aim to customize your content delivery. As you move away from long fixed web pages, you’ll modularize your content so that the right details can be delivered when and where they are needed, without forcing customers to scroll through extraneous details hunting for what they need. Don’t plan content types around page layouts—develop them based on the information that customers need to access.
Putting a ceiling on the number of content types can limit the flexibility of your content—your ability to reuse content and to combine it in different ways. Organizations that use few content types often are carrying over legacy practices where content is structured as pages and screens, rather than semantically by its purpose and intent.
Lumping and splitting content types
Structuring content into content types requires an understanding of two issues:
- The relationships between various information and messages
- The goals that content needs to support
It involves balancing the number of content types with the amount of detail within each content type. Getting this balance right requires judgment.
Keep in mind this rule of thumb: Information that belongs together—when it is created and/or when it is delivered—should stay together. In other words, group the content type according to what related information that users need to say and see.
- Start with related information and messages about topics or tasks that all customers will need to see all the time and that your organization will always need to communicate. That information will belong in a content type.
- Next, consider cases where that’s not always true. If there are common exception scenarios—where a distinct audience segment routinely needs certain information only some of the time—it may make sense to break that information out into a separate content type.
- When you know that you’ll want to manage and deliver related information flexibility, either because you want to combine it in different ways or will develop it at different times, it makes sense to structure those pieces into separate content types.
Each time you create a content type, you are affirming that the grouping of information is important and belongs together. You’ve created a structural pattern that you will use regularly.
Can you have too many content types?
Again, no arbitrary limit exists on the number of content types beyond which no organization should exceed. The value of a content model is that it can enable global enterprises to operate at scale more effectively. To manage content at scale will necessitate having a wide range of content types.
However, it is certainly possible to have more content types than your organization can use productively. When that happens, the content structure becomes overly complicated and difficult to work with. Instead of gaining the benefits of streamlined creation and content reuse, the setup becomes cumbersome because the model doesn’t reflect the needs of authors and audiences.
An organization will have too many content types when some are unnecessary—they don’t add much value to either authors or for customers. They tend to require special effort to use and maintain because they impose extra steps for frequent tasks, or else they aren’t used much and add needless complexity to the content model.
Redundant content types tend to arise when:
- The model doesn’t reflect author priorities
- Business requirements are poorly understood
- The model is poorly governed, resulting in the proliferation of content types that have limited utility
While the content model provides a technical foundation for the management and delivery of content, it must also match how authors develop information and messages to provide what customers want to know or need to see.
Authors will be the primary user of content types. It’s imperative that they actively contribute to the design of content types. They should be clear about the purpose of each content type they encounter, and not wonder which one they are supposed to use or what’s the difference between two similar types.
Many organizations new to content modeling make the mistake of leaving the development of the content model to developers. Sometimes this results in too many content types that are difficult for authors to navigate.
A developer may be inclined to model content as though it were a relational database, breaking information down into smaller and smaller units. When that’s done, the content types aren’t aligned with how authors think about them. They’ve become too granular. The relationships between numerous small content types become deeply nested, which forces authors to jump through many steps to complete routine tasks.
Don’t plan your content types based on assumptions. Another driver of extraneous content types is phantom reuse scenarios, which result in just-in-case content types. The desire to reuse content and plan for future needs is laudable. But if an organization isn’t clear about its business requirements relating to content types, it can misjudge how its content will be used. It will mint additional content types thinking it might want to reuse this content elsewhere for some as-yet-unknown reason. It will decide to create a special content type to hold that information without verifying it will need it.
Also, watch out for special requests that can add poorly utilized content types. Some organizations create custom types that are only used once to structure a single content item. These uniquely shaped “snowflake” content types are disconnected from other content types. Before adding new types, check that existing ones can’t be used. (Read more about when to create a new content type.)
Show content types that are relevant to teams
Instead of being preoccupied with how many content types an enterprise needs, focus on how many content types people in specific job roles will need to use. Look closely at which specific content types various people need to access.
Individuals and groups of authors won’t need to use all the content types that are available in the enterprise content model. They shouldn’t have to see all of them either.
Having many content types does not necessarily mean the content model will be confusing or overwhelming. The relevance of the content types will depend on how they are designed and organized.
Content types become poorly organized and confusing when they aren’t connected properly. Don’t make authors have to search for related content types that they routinely will need to access. Be sure you’ve defined the relationships between types by specifying links among them. Doing so will ensure that related types are readily available to authors and be used.
Make sure your content types are organized according to who uses them and where they are needed. You can curate content types into groupings that will be relevant to specific parts of your company. If you group content types that are used by the same team into collections, authors will have ready access to those content types they need, and they won’t need to see types not relevant to their tasks.
The design of content types plays a critical role in shaping how you implement your CMS and how you structure your content operations. Include a range of stakeholders and allow sufficient time to understand your requirements thoroughly. That up-front investment will set you up for long-term success.